Review: Embattled Arkansas by Michael Banasik

Books on the Prairie Grove Campaign

Embattled Arkansas: The Prairie Grove Campaign of 1862. Michael E. Banasik. Wilmington, NC: Broadfoot Publishing Company (1998). 580 pp. 30 maps.

The extended title of Michael Banasik’s Embattled Arkansas: The Prairie Grove Campaign of 1862 is misleading, but in a very good way. The author does not just cover the Prairie Grove Campaign, instead extending his coverage to the entire war in Trans-Mississippi Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Territory from just after the Battle of Pea Ridge through the end of 1862. And he covers this long neglected topic in great detail, supported by numerous maps and illustrations. Banasik makes clear in his forward that the book is mainly a military history, and he further states that the book is first and foremost a retelling of the military events that occurred in this area and time. He goes on to point out that the book is not meant to analyze these events so much as it is to describe them, saying “with few exceptions, [I] have left the speculation and analysis to others who might follow.” In this and several other ways, Banasik’s book reminds me of Ed Bearss’ masterful 3-volume work The Vicksburg Campaign.

Banasik starts out by describing the attempted Federal movement on Little Rock, Arkansas in the summer of 1862. Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price had moved east of the Mississippi River, leaving Arkansas virtually undefended. Into the void stepped Maj. Gen. Thomas C. Hindman, who through various methods of dubious legality quickly raised a new “First Corps, Department of the Trans-Mississippi” from almost nothing. Banasik does praise Hindman for this achievement. In the end however, the Federal move on Little Rock was foiled more by supply issues than by any military moves on the part of Hindman’s force. In the wake of this movement, Union Brig. General James G. Blunt organized a force out of Kansas to invade the Indian Territory. The force was led in the field by Colonel William Weer. Weer kept his troops in the Indian Territory despite a severe drought, and eventually a mutiny of sorts was organized by Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Frederick Salomon. Banasik does not condemn Salomon for this action, and seems to think that the move was necessary in light of the supply situation. Another Federal move had been defeated by the elements rather than by any Confederate force. During the summer of 1862, Hindman was determined to procure new recruits in Missouri, and he sent several Colonels who were Missouri men into that state to raise new manpower for the Confederacy. Despite Federal efforts to eliminate these recruitment camps and the eventual destruction of several of these regiments, thousands of men headed south to fight with Hindman’s Army. Banasik shifts gears to cover the “Fall Campaign of 1862” in the next chapter. Hindman had sent some of his cavalry force north into the southwest corner of Missouri, and they successfully beat back an attack by several Federal brigades in a sharp fight at Newtonia. Despite the victory, the Confederates pulled back into northwestern Arkansas. The Federals under John Schofield felt that the campaign season was over, and two of the three divisions under Generals Herron and Totten settled in for the coming winter in south central Missouri. James Blunt’s Kansas Division was sent into northwestern Arkansas to keep the Confederates on their toes. Blunt exceeded orders and attacked the Confederate cavalry at Cane Hill, driving them south. Hindman here saw an excellent opportunity to crush the exposed Blunt before help could arrive. That general had orders not to risk a general engagement, and was told to fall back on Herron, then starting a forced march to save him. Blunt ignored or misunderstood these orders, and chose to stand firm at Cane Hill against Hindman’s entire force. Herron, with his Second Division and part of Totten’s Third, made an almost unparalleled forced march southwest to come to Blunt’s rescue. He almost stumbled into a disaster of his own when he encountered Hindman’s force at Prairie Grove Church, arrayed on a formidable plateau well suited to the defense. Hindman had gotten in between Herron and Blunt, who was to the southwest, still sitting at Cane Hill. Herron, worried about Blunt, immediately launched several attacks, but these were bloodily repulsed. Just when the day seemed lost, Blunt appeared on the northwestern edge of the battlefield after taking a circuitous route north from Cane Hill and then back southeast to the sounds of battle. Blunt’s men forced the Confederates to resume a defensive posture, and the rest of the fighting was hard but inconclusive. Both sides claimed victory, but Hindman’s force was the one to retreat. In reality, the battle was a bloody draw. The strategic victory, however, was the Federals. In really his only major analysis in the book, Banasik calls Blunt “extremely lucky” and asserts that he was fortunate not to be destroyed. Only Herron’s miraculous march saved him from a sure defeat.

I read Banasik’s rather large book in only several days. This is another set of campaigns with which I was only vaguely familiar before the battle, so the detailed discussion of events was much appreciated by this reader. I enjoyed the book and feel that I have a much better knowledge of the war in Arkansas and surrounding areas in 1862. The detailed orders of battle with unit strengths going down to the regimental level are a major plus. I have rarely seen better orders of battle, and wargamers will want this one if they plan to do any scenarios on Prairie Grove, Newtonia, or Cane Hill. Despite the large number of detailed maps, I felt the book could have contained a few more area maps depicting where certain forces were located. The absence of Cane Hill on several maps had me momentarily confused as well, though HPS Simulations’ computer game Campaign Ozark (designed by fellow blogger Drew Wagenhoffer) cleared up that confusion quickly. I believe Drew based his map of the Prairie Grove / Cane Hill area at least partially on the maps in this book. Another oddity was the repeated use of the term “Feds” by the author to describe Northern troops. I kept thinking of Agents Mulder and Skully or a 1920’s Chicago shootout, Al Capone style. This was a rather minor thing, and it didn’t detract from the quality of the book. Despite the author’s mention of little “speculation and analysis”, I would have liked to have seen more discussion of the faults and qualities of the various commanders. With that said, this might have pushed the book into the “unprintable range” if the author wanted the book to be printed in one volume. Speaking of publishing, as far as I know only a hardback volume has ever been produced, making the book rather scarce and expensive. I managed to pick up my copy at the Shiloh National Battlefield Bookstore for its listed price of $40. This was several summers ago, so the book may no longer be available even there. I would recommend this book without reservation to anyone interested in the Trans-Mississippi Theater in particular or good Civil War campaign studies in general. If you can find it, that is.

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One response to “Review: Embattled Arkansas by Michael Banasik”

  1. […] I was happy to pay.  I knew then that this book was already becoming scarce.  As I mention in my review of Embattled Arkansas, “Banasik makes clear in his forward that the book is mainly a military history, and he […]

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